What do Normal People, Sex Education, Gentleman Jack and I May Destroy You have in common? Besides being undeniably brilliant TV shows, they all portray engaging and accurate sex and intimacy – and that’s largely down to Ita O’Brien.
As the pioneering creator of Intimacy on Set Guidelines, she works in theatre, TV and movie sets to choreograph simulated sexual scenes within a safe and supportive environment. It’s a fascinating job, so we asked her how she got there…
‘I started dancing aged three, and attended the Royal Academy of Dance followed by Bush Davies. When I finished school, I worked as a dancer in musical theatre for ten years. It was amazing – I danced in the West End, and toured in musicals like Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and On The Town.
In 1990, a car accident damaged my back. I knew I had to find a new path, but dancing was all I had ever known. I thought, ‘If I’m not a dancer, what am I? Who am I?’ It was incredibly hard. One of my final shows was On the Town, which inspired me to think more about narrative, and using your body to tell a story. I became interested in acting, and gained a place on the MA at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1996.
Transitioning into acting was challenging. As a dancer, you strive for perfection, but as an actor, you strive for truth. It was especially hard because, after meeting my partner, I fell pregnant in my first year at Bristol Old Vic! I had my son Zac over the summer, then studied through out my second year with a new-born baby. A year after I finished the course, I was pregnant with my daughter, Zoe.
I worked as a theatre actor for eight years. I had some great jobs, like the National’s production of Pillars of the Community, directed by Marianne Elliott in 2005. As I raised my kids, I knew I wanted more stability, and this coincided with discovering the MA in Movement Studies at Central School of Speech and Drama in 2006. Movement coordinators choreograph and develop the non-dancing movement in productions, for example, teaching actors how to portray zombies, as in the film The Girl With All the Gifts where I worked as associate movement director. It felt like the perfect marriage of my dance and acting background, and I started teaching movement at drama schools.
In 2014, I was working on a devised piece of work called ‘Does my sex offend you?’ exploring the dynamic between perpetrator and victim. My focus was on what practices and principles I needed to put in place to keep my actors safe whilst exploring this dynamic. Throughout my career I’ve seen how actors were told to ‘go for it’ in scenes with intimate content. This means the actors’ private intimate bodies are brought into play in their work, and it can trigger feelings of shame. If an actor is touched in a way they’re not prepared for, it can have serious repercussions, and some actors may be traumatised by their experiences. I worked to develop best practice, along with my mentor, Vanessa Ewan, senior lecturer in movement at Central School of Speech & Drama, who’s inspiration it was, when seeing a rehearsal for a fight scene, that this structure and careful choreography was what was needed for intimate scenes.
I started teaching what I was developing in drama schools, and soon my guidelines were created. When the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted in 2017, there was a realisation across the industry that codes of conduct were needed to keep actors safe. I went to Equity, the trade union for creatives, and told them I already had guidelines ready. From there, I started working on productions.
My work involves inviting open communication and transparency; agreement and consent of touch, simulated sexual content and of nudity; and choreographing intimate content. I ask actors for their ‘no-go’ zones and chat through any concerns, before feeding back to the directors and working out creative ways to best serve the story and character. For example, if an actor doesn’t want to be touched in between their legs, we agree where they can be touched on the thigh to achieve the same effect. Then we rehearse a specially-devised choreography to ensure the actors feel confident, while keeping their consent and preferences in mind at every step.
Sex Education was the first TV production I worked on. It was an honour to be part of a show so focused on portraying sex as funny and awkward, yet honest and sensitive. This initiated a huge interest in what I was doing, so I founded Intimacy on Set to develop best practice training to serve the industry across the globe.
Working with director Lenny Abrahamson on Normal People was such a privilege. It was a joy to coordinate his vision in the scenes with Paul Mescal (Connell) and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne). They are superb actors and I’m proud of the response it has received. It was also an honour to work on I May Destroy You with Michaela Coel too – it’s such an important story to be out in the world.
Sometimes, directors resist my involvement, but I try not to take it personally. This work is so important, and I’m confident that the industry is changing for the better. When the scenes I work on resonate with viewers, and actors tell me they are grateful I was there, it makes everything worthwhile.’
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